‘Cicatrize, or, After the Restaurant Closes Down’ by Samantha Moe

I focus on the small crabs, whose bodies were grey, but I remember them as perhaps blue or purple. I focus on lettuce leaves, the smooth surface of hard boiled eggs, the scars on your hands, the way the counter presses into my collarbone. The lights, the lamps, the rugs, the guests.

I think about you at all hours, but only when it’s late can I leave the house, drive into the wooded veins of town, and dream. Music heightens the experience. If I focus too much, if I am too influenced by my surroundings I get drawn out of it. With proper inattention I become lost, I am crying, I can see you.

It’s always about the ocean, even though we’ve never gone there, not together, anyway. I know you love the ocean, too. I wish I knew if you loved me. 

I have gone to the ocean several times this past month, and every time I message you. Here are my feet, wading through the too-sticky water, the waves are so small, I’ve nearly stepped on forty hermit crabs. Here are mollusks I’ve placed in my pocket, hollowed out and broken, just like me. Here are my hands, I wonder where yours are. I daydream about the way you used to lean on the counter. I wonder how you would lean if you were in the sea. Would you lean into me, or the sand? Perhaps I should come back in my bathing suit. I’m far too afraid to sit in these goopy lines, which run all over the ground. I hear the woman behind me asking her husband what they are. He doesn’t respond and she says maybe they are eggs, maybe they are trash. He says he doesn’t know. 

I lean on the car to scrape sand off the bottoms of my feet. Later that night I return to watch the sun set. I am not alone, and when the strawberry moon appears, it’s so beautiful I want to cry. I try to take a picture to send to you but the clouds intervene. They don’t want me to give everything away. I can’t help myself. 

Melted berry compote you would reduce on a stove in the back. The idea of connecting each of the walk-in refrigerators to create one chilled experience. The blue apple eggs I have created in my mind’s eye, they contain ghosts, you cannot cut them without a proper knife. The food in the kitchen is unreal, surreal. No matter what I do I am always thinking about your presence in prose. No matter what literary space I try to occupy myself with, no matter what reaches of my memory I dive into.

 I always return to the foyer, I return to your hands, ghost cookies, wax paper, grease pencils, pearl earrings, skull earrings, candy corn, rotary phones, freshly vacuumed rugs. Swamp dust and storm puddles, alligator balloons, stuffed animal gifts, a plate that a child drew a smiley face onto. Sitting on hands, exchanging secrets for birds, watching those same birds fly in and out of the chest like it’s nothing, like magic is just another Tuesday. Loving five o’clock, loving everyone. Everyone loving everyone else. Everyone losing everyone else, then everyone gaining. The gentle way that rain falls on the house—this house. The house lit from within. The house yellow and soft against the night, though painted gold, paint flaking to reveal brick, brick stretching into the earth. I’m in love beneath the storm lamps. When I get home I’m coated in bugs.

The restaurant splinters in my mind’s eye, the way it splintered in Fall. I remember holding hands above filled sinks, forgetting the alphabet when weeded, beer hidden in the fridge, cookies tucked away where the butter should be. I was a nested sentence, I was a hostess, I was a panic attack, calmed only by strangers’ hands on my body. 

I love the birds you love. It feels like they make a nest in my ribcage, maybe my heart, though perhaps that’s the lingering effects of a panic attack. What are the other parts of my body that I have completely forgotten existed because I am so completely obsessed with the heart? There are so many. I fear I cannot remember anything beyond hands, heart, lungs, veins. What else is there? I am not taking care. I am relapsing in the employee restroom with my wine key pressed to my left shoulder. 

I wish you would write on me with grease pencil. Tell me the secrets you have left. I have only one, and it’s that the bird fits perfectly inside of my mouth just like a jawbreaker, but I have to be careful not to squish its feathers. 

Tell me your favorite phone number. Tell me what you think is lovely about the world. I miss the cobwebs and the caramel hallway that was always cold. Privately, I want to write softly. I only want to feel soft things, to encase my memories, to come home with shoes in one hand, keys in the other. I want the smell of summer soap in the air, the healthy green hue of trees whose leaves are wide as my palms, sky full of arbor edges and stars. To walk around the edges of the lake, to hold your hand as you guide me. 

Sometimes I am in love with the emptied husk of a restaurant, replaying conversations with every guest, incapable of pause or indifference. These days it’s all head-first, all of the time. And when I’m not daydreaming about you, I am afraid. 


Samantha Moe is a queer creative writer and editor. After receiving her M.F.A. in fiction from Converse College, she wanted to pursue her PhD, and is currently studying creative writing at Illinois State University. She writes about food, researches restaurants, and she loves nature writing. Her work has appeared in Overheard Lit Mag, and she is the recipient of an Author Fellowship award from Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. When not writing she illustrates a 1,000-foot art piece.

‘Reset’ by Vera Hadzic

The man living across the hall is old. We call him John, or Mr. Wallace when we’re intimidated by the shelves of skin on his cheeks. Lately, John’s been knocking on our door whenever he has a problem with his computer. He uses it to play solitaire and to Skype his granddaughter, but sometimes it acts up. So some of us head to his apartment and tinker around. I have to slow each step so I can walk by John’s side. We move slow enough for the marrow to drip down the walls of my bones, pouring viscous and thick like sand in an hourglass. In John’s apartment, all the clocks are frozen. It’s 10:12, 8:26, and 3:02 all at once, and the calendar is still flipped to October even though it’s March. The place is littered with photographs—capsules of people I’ve never seen. The fridge babbles (it doesn’t always work, either). The smell of cigarettes wools over every item. Smoke unchains from the end of John’s cigarette, carving footholds in the air, climbing to the ceiling. I watch it spill from his lips, unscroll from his nostrils. John dissipates into the grey, sending out light through the orange throb of the cigarette and the flint of his eyes. Sometimes he reminds me of a sleepy dragon; or a stone knight, eroding under moss. When the computer’s fixed, John stands up, thanks us thoroughly, sends us on our way. 

The police sit us down in our kitchen and try to establish a timeline. I don’t think the interrogation lasts fifteen minutes. Then again, our apartment doesn’t have a clock. We use the stove to tell time, or our phones, or the Fitbit charging on the granite counters, never worn. Terri is the one with a good memory, and she swears she saw John getting his mail a week ago. I tell the police about the time I was sick, and the hallway was dark, and two kids at the door gave me some bullshit story about coming in to check our cable. The police officer, the one with a toothbrush moustache, asks if I thought they were suspicious. I said, our apartment doesn’t have a TV. He asks if that was over a week ago. Just to make sure we understand the timeline.

The new neighbours move in six months later. They’re a young family—a couple and their baby, who they dress in tiny pink shirts and bushy flower bows. When I meet them on the stairs, they say hello, smile, ask about the previous owner. I say what the police said—it was definitely a robbery. I don’t say that it was probably the two kids in the dark, that I should have paid more attention. That maybe if I’d given them some cash, this could have ended differently. I don’t think about how it was us who found him—Terri and me. She has a good memory, but mine has become intentionally bad. I try not to remember him, so I focus on the details. The pulled-out drawers, closet doors thrown open, boxes, books, clothes swarming the floor. All of it hazy, distorted, blurred and spotted like there’s fungus growing over it, frothing over the fabric and swallowing the light. Our new neighbours don’t need help with their computer, but they do invite us in for a drink. The clock in the kitchen and the one in the living room both read 7:32. 

I think about how easy it is to reset a clock.


Vera Hadzic (she/her) is a writer from Ottawa, Ontario, studying at the University of Ottawa. In the past, her work has appeared in Crow & Cross KeysKissing DynamiteRejection Letters, and elsewhere. She is an editor for Wrongdoing Magazine and can be found on Twitter @HadzicVera.

‘Maybe We At War With Norway’ by Bojana Stojcic

(Talking into my tape recorder) I’m going to hide this tape when I’m finished. (Panting against the plastic, keeping the viewer focused on my mouth) I dunno what the hell’s in there, but it’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is. It’s like the Thing, and it’s not because it’s ugly and unpredictable. It’d be a good thing to see it before it sees you, though. (Pausing for breath) At least we know it must come into contact with its host to start replicating before eventually taking over the entire body. It’s because…um…I find it equally disappointing, somehow too deliberate to be taken seriously. What I meant to say is (sweating buckets like an ape) it’s like the Thing, this ice station of ours—all about suspense where everyone’s a potential threat in disguise, and (raising my voice) it’s not like we didn’t have a chance to rewrite the gore scenes and low-key characterization, or at least overcome the stereotype of the loser, or psycho, or hero. (Looking deep in thought, nail-biting scene with a wide shot) No, that didn’t happen (resignation song playing)…it’s not likely to happen, like ever. Turns out we’re nothing but setups for an attack by the Thing, our primary goal being to get jumped on from behind, which leads us to the second problem, and the third—plausibility, the loss of it. (Taking off my glasses, can’t see a thing, putting them back on) We know it has a thing for waiting—that much is clear—or until you’re alone so it can digest, copy, repeat. It’s just that (biting through my lip, adding to a high tension climax) by the time we see Doc, is he still Doc or is he the Thing? And when it’s gone, how the fuck do we know there’s not something left crawling around the Norwegian outpost?

The tape recorder slides out of my hand and falls through the floor. (Through cracks, knotholes or as a result of shrinkage of floor? Think about it.) Those who wandered off alone have gotten back with silly grins on their faces, some still claiming this is pure nonsense—doesn’t prove a thing, others screaming cut me loose, dammit, having lost count of who was infected and who wasn’t. Clearly, this takes the fun away but no one said the Thing was fun. (Facing the camera) I dare you to watch the screen.

(Turning my back)

I thought you’d feel that way, the Thing’s lip curls into a sneer.

(Throwing dynamite at the Thing, prolonging the reveal as long as possible) Yeah, fuck you too!

***

Deleted scenes: the greenhouse’s roof ripped away, causing the marijuana crop to freeze (too difficult to pull off), more Norwegian corpses (lack of time/ budget), ship looking more sophisticated (leaves too many unaddressed implications behind), scotch in hand, smiling my Thingy smile. (No need to start the whole “perhaps the Thing will bring back more of its kind” crap—it’s nihilistic enough.)


Bojana Stojcic comes from Serbia / lived in Canada / lives in Germany, where she writes flash, cnf and (prose) poetry. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Versification, Brave Voices Magazine, Punk Noir Magazine and Sledgehammer Lit. In her opinion, if we all do the thing, we may just stand a chance.

‘Ghost Cat’ by Andrea Lynn Koohi

Cats are everywhere these days. 

“Look, a kitty!” my 4-year-old son Jack shouts, dropping his fork to his plate and pointing out the window. 

I look out to our backyard and sigh. Indeed there is a kitty, and it’s one I’ve seen before, tiptoeing across the garden soil as though it thinks I can’t see it. White fur popping like snow on coal. 

“I think he likes our backyard,” Jack says as the cat lowers its backside behind a hydrangea. 

“Indeed,” I say, glaring at the cat and then remembering the other cat I’ve been meaning to bring up all day. Lucy, my sister-in-law’s cat – dead for two weeks already, and I still haven’t told Jack. She was probably about a hundred years old in human years, but what comfort is that to a kid? Plus, he loved her. 

So I’ve let the days pass with Jack’s ignorance intact. I’ve watched him play Doctor with his own “kitty” – a ratty old plush with a resemblance to Lucy I could really do without. 

“Time for your check-up!” he told the plush this morning. The cat’s bent-whiskered head fell grotesquely to the side, but Jack didn’t mind. Plastic doctor’s kit in hand, he set his small hands to work.

Stethoscope to the heart. Thermometer to the mouth. Here’s a bit of medicine. Look, all better now.

The thing about secrets is that they’re kind of like cats. If I keep them locked up, my whole world creeps with their presence. I sense them in the shadows like silent stalkers, slinking around in the corners of my vision, lurking in places I thought they couldn’t reach. It’s high time I set this one free.     

I take a deep breath and turn to Jack. 

“So you know your Aunt Sara’s cat, Lucy?”

His face lights up and my chest aches instantly. I should have known better than to look at him.

My eyes find the cat outside again, now lounging ghost-like on the freshly cut lawn. Suddenly it hits me that we’ve been here before. Not at this table, but in the car, the day I told him my mother died. Our bodies were just like this, in fact – facing the same direction, looking out the window, sparing me the need to look at him. 

The message on my tongue feels heavier now. “Well,” I say, staring harder at the cat, but now seeing my mother’s cat, snow white as well. “Remember when we talked about how, when animals and people get old, they die?” 

Jack says nothing, but I feel his body tense, a spoon of peas forgotten in his hand. 

“Lucy was very old and sick.” I’m hauling words like bricks now. “She died a few weeks ago.” 

No response. 

I know the sort of thing I should say to him next – “It’s ok to feel sad – I feel sad too” or “I know you loved her and you’re going to miss her.” Validate their emotions, I read somewhere. Let them know it’s ok to feel.  

“So,” I say. “We won’t be seeing her anymore.”     

My mother. The cat. The cat. My mother. I close my eyes to clear the jumble in my mind, but now I’m seeing the road again. My hands are gripping the steering wheel and I’m delivering the news in the very same way. A passing fact, a tale of spilt milk. We’re seeing tons of these cases, the police officer said. Given her history, it was bound to happen eventually.  

I open my eyes and glance at Jack, who’s still looking forward, eyes wide. 

I’m hoping this plays out like it did in the car. He’ll stay silent for a minute and then change the subject, it won’t be a big deal when he never mentions her name again. 

Finally Jack speaks, his voice too small for the boy I know. 

“Nothing lasts forever, right Mama?” 

I scour my brain for something comforting, but his words sit between us like a newly formed crevice. There’s nothing I can think of to bridge it. 

“That’s right, Jack,” I say. 

My mother used to leave out three bowls of kibble and three bowls of water every day for her cat. When I asked her why and she said “just in case”, I remember how I laughed and changed the subject.

Stethoscope to the heart. Thermometer to the mouth. Sometimes there is no medicine. 

The cat climbs the wooden fence at the back of our yard and navigates the top with perfect balance.


Andrea Lynn Koohi is a writer and editor from Toronto. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Maine Review, Pithead Chapel, Cabinet of Heed, Idle Ink, Streetlight Magazine, Emerge Literary Journal and others.

‘Old Habits’ by Ciku Gitonga

At 11 p.m., the Ottawa airport was nearly deserted. I sat there surrounded by my luggage, an island on a sea of blue carpeting.

“What are you doing on the ground?” I didn’t look as he came to stand beside me. “Hey, come on, it’s gross down there. Shoes have been everywhere.”

“Mm-hm,” I said, not moving. “I’m tired.”

He crouched beside me and took my hand. 

“I know, baby, I know. Look, we don’t have to go back to—” Instinctively, he paused as some people walked past us. I hated him for that second, for his reflexive accommodation. “We don’t have to go back all the way to Mum’s. The lady at the desk said that we can stay at The Marigold free of charge for tonight. Come back tomorrow morning for the new flight.”

It was good news—a part of me acknowledged it, and another part stared absently at the passing feet of a large family rushing to gate 12, thinking nothing. 

“How would we even get there?” I said. I was still not looking at him. Lifting my gaze seemed too much effort. 

“The airport shuttle,” he was saying. “We should start moving to the stop, actually. The next one leaves in, like, 20 minutes.”

“Mmh.”

Now he placed his hand on my chin, tilted upwards. “Hey,” he said. I looked at him, then away, gently chastised.

“I’m sorry. I feel like shit.” I had since this afternoon, when I woke up at 5 p.m. to the tinny blare of my birth control alarm. We’d stumbled in well past sunrise, fallen asleep fully clothed. There’s something depressing about waking up in the afternoon. I’d had a whole day planned to cap off our trip. A morning jog along Rideau, brunch at a nice little place in Byward. As I lay in bed, the back of my head gradually gained momentum to a steady, sharp thudding. He’d moved to press himself against me, hand reaching for my breast, and I’d shot away, ran to the toilet bowl to heave. 

This was on Kibanja. On all of them, really, but on him especially. Throughout the night he’d hovered like a fucking odour, closer than anyone in the ring of friends. On the Uber to the bar, I’d promised myself silently to show enthusiasm—we’d fought the day before about his friends, our voices hushed and hissing in his mother’s guestroom. It had scared me to see his nostrils flared and his voice sharpened—sometimes I forget that his cool, almost neutral expression is not permanent. Afterwards, lying naked in his arms, I had promised to try. And I did—I immersed myself into his circle last night, feeling like a swinging hatchet plunging into the rings of a tree trunk, tightly bound and ancient. 

When I first met them, Kibanja and Stef and the rest, I saw how they carried the years with them, and how the years melted away in their gestures, echoes of freshman days. He became different with them—regressed, I guess. It was repulsive. Like how he became around his mother, sitting in adolescent complacency as she bustled about. When he reached for me across his childhood sheets, I instinctively recoiled. 

“Kibanja was there for me when no one else was,” he had said during our fight. “He helped me stand up to the guys who were giving me shit at Ridgemont.”

“But he takes advantage of you,” I had said.

You’re a pushover, always have been, I had wanted to say. 

Last night I watched them: he, hanging on to every word, downing the shots as Kibanja egged him on. I remember the stories he told me about grade 12, how he’d get beers with his new ID while Kibanja and his lacrosse friends waited outside. Afterwards, he’d walk behind them into the woods, following their long shadows.

“One time they got me to drink so much—it actually wasn’t that much—and I was puking everywhere. Kibanja didn’t even want to drop me off home because Mum would know what was up. God, they roasted me for that night for, like, months.”

“So you had to walk home alone?”

“Well, yeah, but—”

I smirked. Kibanja was their centre when they all got together. They moved like waves at his frequency. His little band of misfits. I watched, ordering one drink after another, pretending to laugh with Stef. 

I had said: “It’s like you haven’t, like, grown up at all—”

Now he was holding both my hands. “Look, it’ll be just the two of us in a big hotel bed. You can relax. I’ll give you a massage. Eh?”

The skin of his palms was damp and warm. I imagined the patches of sweat he’d leave on the hotel sheets. I imagined the hotel room deep in darkness, after I had given in, after he’d finally fallen asleep. I would look at him from across the bed. His features went even softer in sleep, and his body curled inward like a fetus, like a wilting flower. And I, stiffly staring.

Now, on the airport floor, I looked up and matched his smile. I rose when he pulled me up with him. As I stood, I fought the sudden urge to vomit.


Ciku Gitonga is a second-year student at the University of Ottawa, studying Political Science. She immigrated to Canada from Kenya in 2016. She enjoys writing, mostly fiction, and sometimes poetry. This piece is her first to be published anywhere, and she is very excited. 

‘Florida Room’ by Wilson Koewing

When I was five, we visited my dad’s parents in Florida for Christmas. I rode down to Nokomis Beach with my grandpa. He stopped by the bait shack and purchased a Budweiser.

“That your grandson, Al?” a fisherman asked.

I was half hiding behind a dock piling. 

“That’s what they tell me.” 

My grandpa was a first-generation German immigrant. A child of the Depression. I had Nintendo and all the games. His blonde-haired blue-eyed grandson. We walked out on the jetty to watch the boats leave the marina. 

On the way home he cut a sharp left. We ended up at a bar under a bridge. It was dark and smoky inside. He ordered me a Coke and lifted me onto the bar. 

“Ginger, this is my grandson.”

“Al, I didn’t know you had a family,” Ginger said. 

He ordered a Manhattan. I sipped my Coke as they chatted. 

When we left, he said, “Don’t tell anyone I brought you here.” 

I nodded that I understood. 

“If you do, I’ll never take you anywhere like that again.” 

As we drove home, I stared out the window. The palm trees and retro houses of Nokomis gave way to the sprawl of Venice before opening to fields of sawgrass on the town’s edge. We returned to their house in a subdivision of houses that all looked the same. But all Florida. 

We entered through the garage. My dad looked at me like he knew I was hiding something. My mom glanced up from a magazine.

“You okay?” she said.

“Boy,” my dad said. “Answer your mother.”  

I didn’t answer.

My grandma, who’d been outside doing aerobics, stepped inside sweating. 

Feeling the weight of their collective gaze, I caved. 

“He took me to a dark place under the bridge,” I said. “There was a lady who liked him. She gave me a coke.”

My dad laughed.

“Honestly, Albert,” my grandma said. 

His stare was burning me alive. He and my dad went out on the Florida room with beers. My grandma squeezed fresh orange juice. My mom returned to her magazine. 

I crept out to the Florida room. When my grandpa noticed me, he shook his head in devastated disappointment.  

***

We visited every Christmas after that. As the years passed, I sat with him in his Florida room. On Sundays we watched Dan Marino. Believing the Dolphins could win. Me on the patio couch, him in his chair with a beer and The Wall Street Journal. My dad at the table in the corner, cracking wise. The Dolphins perpetually losing. Marino carving up defenses in vain.

On weekday afternoons, we watched the stock market ticker tape. I’d watch for the symbols of the companies he held to roll by and tell him the price. 

Florida in December was humidity and short days. Afternoon storms. Gators that might wander calmly through the yard or right up to the screen door. 

My grandpa saying, “Hey, you, look at there,” as my eyes globed. 

The orchard in his backyard where I ran in circles to release youthful energy. Even in winter, the grapefruits and oranges glistened on the branches. I gazed up at them with one eye shut so their circumference eclipsed the sun as it burnt still over the treetops. 

“Get in here,” he’d yell. “Marino’s got the ball again.” 

And for years that’s how it went. Until I got older and he got older and bone cancer, assisted living and dementia. Until the Christmas we didn’t visit, and my dad went down to handle the estate and help my grandma move out of their house and into a retirement community. 

I didn’t see him when things got bad. My parents sheltered me from that. 

I figure we owe it to our parents to stand by as they fade from this existence, but not our grandparents. There’s a buffer that goes both ways. Maybe that was why me telling the truth about the bar allowed him to connect with me in ways he couldn’t connect with his own children. 

If nothing else, he taught me a timeless lesson. And maybe that’s all he ever wanted. I regret never saying how much it meant to me, but I take solace in believing he knew. 

For as long as we visited, anytime he and I were left alone on the Florida room he reminded me about the bar. He let me know he hadn’t forgotten. We could watch football together. Go pin fishing under the drawbridge down in Nokomis or on his Wednesday drive to every grocery store in Venice to check the marked down meats. Walks on the jetty and the snacks at the bait shop. The countless hours of silence we enjoyed together. But never once did he take me to another bar or offer me his confidence again. On that he never broke his word. 


Wilson Koewing is a writer from South Carolina. His work has recently appeared in Bending Genres, Schuylkill Valley Journal, The Loch Raven Review and New World Writing.

‘You Cannot Keep Things In Your Pockets’ by Paige Olivia Roberts

At daycare, caterpillars cover the chain link fence surrounding the playground. I spend recess petting their soft bodies. Cover my hands like henna tattoos. Their little feet stick on my skin like miniature tentacles. 

I love the caterpillars; I want to take them home and put them in jars on my windowsill so I can pet and feed them until they cocoon and become butterflies. One by one, I put them in the pockets of my overalls for safekeeping. Sometimes I reach in a pudgy hand and slide a finger across the back of a velvety squirm.

When Mom buckles me into my car seat in the back of her silver Mazda, I pull out my caterpillars to show them to her, but they are all dead or dying, slowly writhing in my sweaty palm.

“Why did you do that?” Mom asks, upset. But I protest the entire car ride home, holding them in cupped hands on my lap, telling her how much I love them, how soft and perfect they are, and how I will take care of them. 

“Not everything is meant to be kept like that,” she says as we pull into the driveway. She unbuckles me from my seat and the herbal smell of her lotion lingers next to me as we walk up the concrete steps to our apartment. The last caterpillar is dying in the curl of my pinky. 

“I don’t know what to do,” I say, sad I am not good enough to keep them alive. 

Mom puts out her hand, and I silently dump the caterpillar carcasses into her palm. I follow her back outside to the edge of the woods, where she crouches and sprinkles them onto a tuft of leaves. 

“We can’t just leave them here,” I whine, hoping Mom can cast some spell and bring them back to life. 

“They deserve to be free and where they belong. You cannot keep things in your pockets and expect them to survive on your love alone.”

She walks me back inside and readies herself for her bartending shift. I watch from the couch as she brushes her hair and dabs her face with a hot washcloth. Sit and wait for my babysitter or dad to arrive. Whoever shows up first. 


Paige Olivia Roberts has a degree in Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Henniker Review, Sidereal Magazine, and Rejection Letters. She has been nominated for a Best of the Net and Pushcart Prize. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Find her on Twitter @paige_por.

‘San Carlos’ by Charles Haddox

In a small room bathed with sunlight, Nana and her mother had spread out herbs to dry on pale blue nylon netting.  The room was filled with magical scents: aromas of earth, of bitter sage perfume, of sweet grapes and citrus, and of rich, ambrosial incense. Dark roots lay in careful rows like market vegetables. Sprigs were spread out flat so that their leaves did not touch.  They looked like tiny children’s drawings of trees. A few large leaves were laid out singly, resembling lance points, bronze-age artifacts turned green by the work of time. Nana was enchanted as she sat before them. Her mother had told her a few minutes earlier about certain plants on the island that had never been identified by botanists. They were species and varieties without a Latin name. Her mother knew them only by the names given to them by generations of San Carlos Islanders. Those names were poetic and sometimes enigmatic. They were symbols, signposts to be read by illiterate peoples; wisdom handed down by her and her mother’s own forebears.  They were part of her heritage, her herencia, that wonderful Spanish word which means both heritage and inheritance.

Nana went to the window and looked out toward the untamed forest that grew a few meters from her home. Most of the nearby trees had great multiple trunks and branches covered with fibrous, dark-brown bark. They belonged to the genus Prosopis and were called feather trees. Their abruptly-pinnate compound leaves looked a little like dark green feathers. Below the nearest tree, a cluster of bamboo-like shrubs with flowers resembling great white pinecones took shelter from the tropical sun. Those shrubs were wild members of the ginger family. The islanders called them soapy ginger. Nana started back as a red grasshopper the size of her thumb leapt onto the mesh screen of the window. A flock of birds settled on the grass that lay between the trees and the house and began to peck for seeds. They were midnight black and the size of doves, except for a few with bright wings the color of raspberry-ice. Nana remembered a stanza from a poem she had read. The lines seemed nonsensical to her:

At twilight a bird fell,
to trouble my sleep
like pink ice.

 There was certainly nothing troubling about the scene outside the window.  She loved the natural world surrounding her. The secret magical plants, the fiercely gaudy birds, the grotesque and playful fish, the awesome, sacred thunderstorms—they were all as much a part of her as the soft, clipped sound of the islander’s speech.

The grasshopper darted away from the window. Its ancestors had been carried to the island by tropical storms, and there they had found their Eden. The same was true of the black birds. Perhaps the male birds had not developed their raspberry-ice wings until after they arrived—on an island with few predators, they could be as gaudy as they pleased. For the animals that colonized the island hundreds of thousands of years ago, their greatest predator had only recently arrived. The people of the island were wont to treat them as a nuisance or as objects of sport. They had also brought animals that escaped and became feral; destructive hunters and scavengers who lived off the native wildlife. Nana marveled at the lack of respect for the island’s creatures that she so often encountered in her daily life.  

She remembered a story that Father Daniel, a Canadian missionary, had told her about a visit to France he had made in his early twenties. Father Daniel and his friends spent several days in Paris, and on their final day one of them remembered in a panic that his parents had told him to be sure and see the “Mona Lisa” during his visit. He asked for Father Daniel’s help (he was just Daniel in those days), and he took him to the Louvre, where the “Mona Lisa” could be found. The young man asked an attendant at the door for directions to the “Mona Lisa.” The attendant explained in detail how to find it, and the young man sprinted through rooms and corridors until he came to the spot where it hung. He stared at the “Mona Lisa” for a moment, as if in shock. His face wore the expression of someone on whom a cruel joke had been played, and he murmured to himself, in total disbelief, “It’s just a damn painting,” before stomping off in anger. Nana could imagine hearing someone on San Carlos saying, “It’s just a damn bird,” after shooting a brace of them for sport.

A pair of small gray birds with white crests joined the black ones on the grass. They pecked at the ground for a moment before suddenly taking wing. Nana watched as they flew off toward the forest. In some bright clearing, grass and mosses were already overtaking fallen branches and trunks. And beneath them, in the rich, silent earth, her impenetrable ancestors slept.  


Charles Haddox lives in El Paso, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border, and has family roots in both countries. His work has appeared in a number of journals including Chicago Quarterly Review, Sierra Nevada Review, Folio, and Stonecoast Review.

‘Self-defense Against Yesterday’ by Judy Darley

The first call of the day comes at 11 a.m. sharp. The girl sounds like she’s still sleep-fogged. She tells me she’s called Gala and asks me to bring a wheelbarrow. I raise an eyebrow at the phone, but don’t make a peep. I’ve had stranger requests.

I’m at her door within the half hour. Gala lets me in, blinking yesterday’s partially unstuck false lashes. I wonder if she knows desiccated kelp is knotted in her hair.

“Can’t you call him an Uber?” I ask. Part of my role is to help the girls become self-sufficient. “Is he really that legless?”

She shakes head. “The problem’s the opposite.” She points to the bathroom door. “In there.”

“What, passed out?”

The girl’s mouth purses so tightly it looks sewn onto her face 

Curiosity overcomes me and I step inside.

At first, I don’t know where to look. Then a splash makes my heart jump and I turn. 

The cephalopod eye that meets mine is vast and full of winter storms.

The towel rail bolsters my balance as I totter. 

Limbs ridged with pearly suckers wave in greeting. Translucent skin flushes from the bathroom suite’s aquamarine to a coy blush shade.

I swallow once, and again. My throat is as dry as the strand at low tide. Inhaling, I expect to smell fish, but catch only hints of salt and stale amaretto.

As I stare, the octopus stretches sinuously until he almost fills the tub. The immense eye seems to expand until it’s all I see. My head fills with a blueness, a greenness, the drag of currents and tides. I grow fluid; weightless. The light dappling my skin is not from the sun.

The ocean recedes and I’m in the bathroom, aware of my one heart thudding out of rhythm with the octopus’s three.

With a curl of one limb, the octopus beckons, siphon frilling gently.

I take a step backwards, out of the bathroom, and close the door behind me.

“Where’d you pick that one up?”

“Don’t know.” Gala closes her eyes. “Don’t remember.”

“What’s the last thing you do recall?”

“A glass of something with one of those maraschino cherries… That stupid Justin Bieber song ‘What Do You Mean?’ playing way too loud.” She frowns. “Will you help, Hera? My mate Ari says you got rid of a half-bull for her last week. She reckons you’re the best.”

“That’s why I’m here.”

I drag the wheelbarrow up the steps into the house and through to the bathroom. “Look, I don’t know what your deal is, but you can’t stay here. I’ll leave the barrow and when I come back, I want you in it. Got that?”

Gala’s grinning when I rejoin her in the kitchen, but I fix her with my steeliest look.

“You are not off the hook, missus. What madness is this, not remembering? Time to slow down, take better care of yourself.”

Her smile withers. “I know that, Hera. Last night was just…” She pushes up her sleeve, showing me a round red welt on her inner arm. “They’re all over me. Reckon they’re from the suckers.”

I sigh and hug her. “Don’t fret. I’ll check he’s in the barrow, chuck a bath towel over him, then this is almost over. Ok?”

“Ok.”

The wind is against us as we march down to the strand. The octopus peers out from under the towel occasionally, his massive eye looking at me rather than our surroundings. 

What? I want to shout. What are you judging me for?

I wonder if we should have called the local aquarium, but vaguely remember that their last cephalopod died after laying ten thousand eggs.

The ocean vision I glimpsed makes me certain this cycloptic octopus has never been in captivity.

It’s harder going when we reach the sand. The wheel keeps sinking. I use all my strength to shove it onwards until we reach where the grains are packed dense and wet.

“Can you make it from here?” I ask, and the octopus makes a movement with one limb that I assume means yes.

I stand back and watch as he clambers out, entire body rippling as he flows into the surf. 

He doesn’t look back. 

Gala and I sit on the strand for a while despite the cold, watching the wind chase clouds over the sea. I run my fingers through her hair, picking out the seaweed. “You girls needs to look after yourselves better,” I tell her. “I was only able to offload your mate Ari’s half-bull thanks to the ring in its nose. On Thursday, Eury woke up next to a viper! Pure poison. If you don’t watch yourselves, one of these nights you’ll bring home some beast I can’t get shot off. Did Ari show you the self-defence mantra? Stay Alert, Expect the Worst…”

She snorts, bull-like herself for an instant, and spouts the next line: “If in doubt, LEAVE. Yeah, got it. No more pills, or booze. I’ll take up yoga instead.”

“Come to my self-defence class on Tuesday,” I urge her. “I promise you it’ll be at least as useful as yoga.” My mobile vibrates. I check the WhatsApp message. 

“Emergency?” Gala asks.

I nod. “Lass called Atala’s accidentally brought home two half-horses she needs gone. Ok to get yourself home?”

She nods, and I hurry off, wheeling the barrow before me like a chariot.


Judy Darley is a British author who can’t stop writing about the fallibilities of the human mind. Her short fiction and journalism have been published and performed in the UK, US, Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand and India. She is Flash Fiction Editor at Reflex Press. Judy’s short story collection Sky Light Rain is out from Valley Press. Her debut collection Remember Me To The Bees is available from Tangent Books. Find Judy at skylightrain.com@JudyDarley on Twitter.

‘Every House Has A Closet’ by Praise Osawaru

Olawale stood in the corridor, in front of the brown door, gawking at its strange markings. Whispers streamed from the closed door into his head every second he spent looking. He wanted to turn around and resume cleaning the house—the reason he followed his mom to Mr. Idemudia’s house, to assist her in tidying up the rich man’s home. The same thing he had always done every weekend. But this door held his gaze, compelling him to a standstill.

A sparrow flew and landed on the window of the corridor, offering an alluring tune. Or perhaps it was a warning. Olawale ignored it. He stretched forth his hand, gripped the doorknob, and twisted it left, right, left. The door opened wide. Within, darkness the length of the room. Another whisper and he took three footsteps in. The door slammed shut behind. Then, he realized what had happened.

“Mom!”

Upstairs, his mom froze on hearing his scream. She threw her broom into the bosom of a couch and dashed off. She traced the echoes of his screams downstairs, a room by the end of the corridor. The same room Mr. Idemudia told her to never enter. Her heart quaked within and she let out a shaking breath.

Just the day before, she had walked into the four-bedroom duplex conscientiously, following an invitation from Mr. Idemudia. Her friend who knew a friend who knew another friend secured her another cleaning job for a wealthy man. She figured including an additional cleaning job into her already tight schedule won’t kill her, so she consented and came to see him.

“Mrs. Salewa, I have just one rule,” Mr. Idemudia said to her, his oblong face stiffened.

She gulped loud like a stone falling into a lake then responded, “I’m listening, sir.”

They both stood opposite each other in the corridor, the air around them uptight as her boss unloaded his rule into her ears.

“Don’t go into the room at the end of this corridor. Take whatever you want from the refrigerator, prepare yourself a queen’s meal, and dance around in the house for all I care. But never enter—never open the door.”

Mrs. Salewa “Yes, sir. But—”

“But what?”

“Where’s the room I shouldn’t enter?”

He paid her silence as a reward for her question. He thought showing her the room would only heighten her curiosity and drive her towards ultimately going against his order. So he didn’t. He thought he was right, but life is unpredictable and things have a way of going south whether we want it or not.

Honks from a car accompanied by screeches pulled her back into the present.

It was as though Mr. Idemudia knew someone had stepped foot into the room. He drove into the compound hastily, kicking his car door wide open and darting into the house. Panting, he headed straight to the brown-door room, meeting Olawale’s mom before it.

“Oga, my son is inside. And the door won’t open.”

“I just went to buy some foodstuffs and you’ve already messed things up! Ehn!”

Mr. Idemudia turned, facing the room. He breathed softly, gripping the doorknob and twisting it carefully. Left. Right. Left. The door opened slowly, letting a frightening creak into the air. The room unhurriedly became lit, driving the darkness into nothingness. Inside, Olawale sat on the floor, legs folded, a broadened smile carved on his face. Two identical girls sat opposite him in white gowns, cackling. A board with snakes and ladders pictured on it laid in the space between them.

Mr. Idemudia and Olawale’s mom walked in, interrupting the children’s game. On seeing Mr. Idemudia, the girls stood up and ran toward him, yelling, “Daddy, you came early today and brought friends!”

Olawale’s mom launched toward Olawale, landing a strident smack on his left cheek. He winced.

“What are you doing here? No, tell me! I—” she paused.

Something caught her attention. Two brown coffins rested in the west end of the room. Both opened. Amid them, a small wooden being, a bowl before him. Just then, she realized the girls called him ‘Daddy’.

“Wait, Oga. I thought you said your kids passed away—that they drowned,” she said, her face heavy with confusion.

“Get out!”

“But, Oga…”

“If you tell anyone what you saw here, things won’t go well for you. Get out!”

Olawale and his mom hastened out of the room. And the door shut itself after them. 

*

Night fell quicker than expected. Olawale’s mom spent nearly an hour in the kitchen preparing dinner—eba and egusi. She exited the kitchen, carrying two bowls in her hands, and walked to the living room, where Olawale laid motionlessly on the sofa. The room was lit by a fluorescent light bulb hanging from a wire in the ceiling. She placed the bowls on the coffee table, and stared ahead, shaking her head at her quiescent son, whose mouth refused to stay sealed. She smacked his feet, calling his name as she sat on a small wooden chair adjacent to him.

“Wale, wake up. Wa jeun.”

But he didn’t even move a muscle.

“Wale! Wale!” She yelled, rising, her right hand ready for another smacking.

The light bulb in the living room flickered for a few seconds, then maintained an illuminated state. Olawale stood behind her, his face as pale as a blank page. He watched his mom, hit his body repeatedly as she cried his name, the sound filling up the room.

“Come, let’s play,” a voice emerged from behind.

Olawale turned around. Mr. Idemudia’s daughters stood a few inches before him, their round faces complemented with grins. One of the twins stretched her left hand forward, palm wide open, awaiting an interlocking. Olawale stared at her palm, then spun to face his mother.

“Let’s go, Wale.”

Olawale turned and grasped one of the twins’ outstretched hands, lacing his fingers with hers.


Praise Osawaru (he/him) is a writer and poet of Bini descent. A Best of the Net nominee, his works appear or are forthcoming in Blue Marble Review, Giallo Lit, Glass Poetry, Ice Floe Press, Kalahari Review, Rising Phoenix Review, and elsewhere. He’s a 2020 Jack Grapes Poetry Prize Finalist, and he was also shortlisted for the Babishai 2020 Haiku Award and the Nigerian Students Poetry Prize 2020. A Virgo and lover of the strange and speculative, he’s a prose reader for Chestnut Review. Find him on Instagram/Twitter: @wordsmithpraise.